What’s in a name?
If you’ve ever named a child, or even a pet, you know the answer. We don’t take this lightly, do we? “Oh, we’ll call the new puppy Rover, that’s easy. We’ll call the new baby Jane or Mary because they’re easy to pronounce and spell.”
Rover, Jane, Mary? All perfectly good names, but particularly good when chosen for a good reason. Wonderful Aunt Jane, whose chocolate chip cookies are a favorite childhood memory. Mary, the mother of Jesus. Rover, because your father told wonderful stories about “his” childhood Rover, and you’re hoping the new pup will live up to the legend.
Do you remember the wonderfully moving scene in the TV production of Alex Haley’s Roots, when Kunta Kinte’s father held him up to the night sky and gave him his name? Powerful stuff, names. They set the seal on who we are.
I have many names. You might, too. Although my real name is Emilie, I was called Terry as a child, after Theresa, my middle name. My mother was Emilie, too, and confusion was avoided this way. My husband and family still call me Terry, as do childhood friends, people from our churches, and a very few writers. Every one else calls me Emilie. I answer to both, and I no longer think of them as two “different” people, as I first did when I began using Emilie on my novels. I am Emilie, Terry, Mom, Aunt, and Grammar. I love them all.
Character names are nearly as important. Do you ever wonder how novelists choose names for their characters? I can tell you how I make my choices, and for me, choosing for characters is only a tad less harrowing than choosing for my children. I’ve been known to stop work on a book for days, because I don’t yet have a character’s name that really suggests their personality, dreams, wishes, faults, and strengths. Suggests who they are to whom, you might ask? To me, of course. Because my take on a name may not be yours. But then, it’s my book.
First, I look at ethnicity. My Boston Brahmin heroine would most likely not be called Rosita. If she were, there might be a fabulous story behind the name that I would need to discover and share with my readers. Rosita would be a major piece of characterization.
Second, I look at the first letter of a name. Have you ever been confused in a novel because there are four characters that begin with R? As novelists, we want to avoid confusion. I make lists to be certain I don’t really have a Robin, Rosita, Rose, Rita. It’s important not to pull my readers out of the story.
Third, suitability of a name for a certain time period. Did you know that the Social Security Administration keeps lists of the most popular names for each year from 1879 forward? You can also get popular names by state, and popular names for twins. It’s helpful to remember that children in 1945 weren’t often named Britney or Tiffany.
Fourth, suitability of a name for a certain region. For the Shenandoah Album series, I researched cemetery listings in the area where my novels were set, and used surnames that were part of Shenandoah County’s history. In Happiness Key, Wanda is from Florida, while Tracy is from California, names that work for those regions. Their names were also checked by popularity for their birth years.
Fifth, and this is completely subjective, if a name doesn’t spring immediately to mind, I go through baby name lists, helpfully available online these days, and let my first impressions guide me. When I have four or five possibilities I’ve checked out, I live with them a bit. Sometimes the names affect the characterization, too. Wanda might be a completely different character if I’d named her Thelma. In fact I can guarantee it.
A Rose can indeed be a Robin or a Rita, but everything else will change when the name does. That’s part of the mysterious process of writing a novel. For me, it’s also part of the fun.
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